Thursday, July 31, 2008

Issues in Pagan-Christian Dialogue: Interview with Jason Pitzl-Waters

One of the people I have been fortunate to interact with on the Internet through interreligious dialogue of sorts is Jason Pitzl-Waters (pictured at left). Jason is behind The Wildhunt blog, one that I frequent as I seek to understand and interact with Pagans. He is currently reading through Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008) in preparation for a book review. Jason will also be posting interviews with these authors on his blog in the near future. I thought it would be good for my readers to hear Jason's thoughts on issues of common interest to Pagans and Christians, and he graciously consented to this interview.

Morehead's Musings: What is your own Pagan pathway and experience that informs your perspective on Pagan-Christian dialogue?

Jason Pitzl-Waters: I consider myself a modern Pagan and polytheist. More precisely, I come from a personal and communal practice of religious Witchcraft. I was raised in a thoroughly secular environment, and my interactions with Christian religiosity were few and far between. So when I came to modern or "neo" Paganism, it was with a "clean slate", and generally free from the hurt and anger some Pagans have from their own experiences with/within Christian religion. Today as an "out" Pagan blogger and writer, I report regularly on Christian-Pagan relations both good and bad, and I try to keep up on trends within Christian communities that may have an impact on us.

Morehead's Musings: You have read through a portion of Beyond the Burning Times with an eye toward writing a review for your blog. What are your initial perceptions of the book?

Jason Pitzl-Waters: I think the book is certainly admirable, and I'm very pleased that Gus diZerega was chosen to represent a Pagan perspective and treated as an equal. His history of interfaith work, and deep understanding of Pagan theologies, makes him a perfect representative. Obviously, as a Pagan, I agree far more often with Gus than I do with Philip, but that is to be expected. I appreciated Philip Johnson's calm and even-handed responses to Gus, and his love-centered view of the gospels. I do think there were a few instances where each"talked past" the other. A normal hazard of such dialogs I suspect. I think I can whole-heartedly state that this is the best book of its kind, and should be read by as many Pagans and Christians as possible. It represents a quantum leap forward in Pagan-Christian relations.

Morehead's Musings: You participate in a reciprocal link exchange with a handful of Christian bloggers. Why do you have a personal interest in dialogue between these religious communities, and what is it about the few links on your site that makes them worthwhile as conversation partners?

Jason Pitzl-Waters: I'm a big believer that Pagans shouldn't isolate themselves. While we are growing quickly, we are still a tiny, and often misunderstood, minority. What Christians do and think can have serious ramifications on us, and we would be foolish to ignore that. Not to mention the fact that the million-plus Pagans in America alone have millions of Christian relatives, friends, and co-workers. A rational and peaceful dialog is the only way forward from the tensions that produce "Satanic Panics", bitter custody fights, lost jobs, broken friendships, and isolated families. We don't have to agree, but we do need to find away to get along. The Christian bloggers I link to represent, I feel, a step forward in achieving that dialog. They reject the fear-mongering and misinformation of the "Religious Right" and certain conservative evangelical communities, and are looking towards better communication.

Morehead's Musings: In our exchanges, and from what I've read on your blog, you seem to find those of us Christians who would identify ourselves as "missional" as being a step above those which engage in heresy frameworks, but you still have some concerns. What are some of the issues that need to be part of the Pagan-Christian dialogue process from the Pagan perspective?

Jason Pitzl-Waters: If Pagan dialogs with "missional" Christians are going to bear fruit, we'll have to find a way to communicate despite some core philosophical and theological differences. A central issue points towards the whole notion of "missional" Christians, that is, a Christian engaging in the "Great Commission" to evangelize. The fact that many of the willing missional dialogers are also working on"culturally sensitive" ways in which to evangelize us presents a quandary. Why should we trust you? Won't your keen insights help fuel the larger Christian Mission movement? One that yearns for the "total evangelization of the world" and doesn't necessarily share the"hands-off" (incarnational) methods of the Christians we have grown to trust? I truly appreciate that missional Christians have disavowed the heresy framework, but these remaining tensions need to be addressed, and a satisfying answer found before we can move to the next step of a more widespread engagement.

Morehead's Musings: Two of our greatest challenges seem to be building a sense of trust, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, dealing with the various factors and experiences that have led to distrust and even animosity between members of our religious communities. How do you see us taking small steps to address these challenges?

Jason Pitzl-Waters: The building of trust is starting to happen, but the Pagan movement(s) (and the individual religions that exist under that umbrella) needs to be treated as valid, fulfilling, and ethical form of religious expression. While global Christianity has established various forms of respectful dialog with other non-Christian religions, modern/contemporary Paganism has long been saddled with insulting assumptions from a variety of Christian traditions. From the extremists who see us as demon-haunted dupes of Satan, to those who perceive Paganism as a gentle form of mental illness (a personality "quirk") that can be cured with enough love and gentle correction. Perhaps some of this comes from Gus diZerega's assertion that we reopen "questions many religious people had long regarded as settled". That Paganism, the once-great enemy of Christendom, was supposed to be a poetic memory, a defeated enemy, not a revived and growing set of faiths.

Further, I would like to make some smaller points to the larger missional audience. First, the testimony of Pagans (and various occultists, New Agers, and metaphysical practitioners) who have embraced Christ do not move us. We don't exist in a binary religious world where if one religion is true all others must be false, so appeals which attempt to use former insiders (or alleged insiders) are at best ineffectual, and at worst insulting. Secondly, a good way to avoid animosity or distrust is to ditch triumphalist language. I have seen Pagans referred to in missional literature as "lost", "unreached", and "opportunities". This is dehumanizing, and reinforces the idea that we are merely targets instead of equals. Third, stop thinking that we haven't embraced the gospel because it hasn't been "contextualized" properly to our community. Most of us are extremely well-read and have had numerous experiences (both positive and negative) with the Christian tradition, we understand the gospel message, we just happen to reject it as an exclusive truth (which according to recent Pew data is a growing attitude). Fourth, and finally, while many Christians think that Christianity is unique because "Christ was real", this fact overlooks the thousands of years of pre-Christian reality and tradition. We too have saviors, heroes, martyrs, miracle workers, saints, and divine intermediaries, and many of them are just as "real" to us as Jesus was. You are certainly welcome to believe that your Jesus holds the singular truth and the best evidence, but we don't necessarily believe that.

Morehead's Musings: What would you like to see as a few of the positive and ongoing outcomes as a result of Beyond the Burning Times?

Jason Pitzl-Waters: Simply put, I would like to see more dialogs like this one. The more we communicate on equal footing, the better our chances of fostering real tolerance and understanding.

Morehead's Musings: You and I have both suggested that fantasy films might make for an interesting venue for interreligious dialogue between Pagans and Christians. Any thoughts on how we might put a film and dialogue festival like this together? And what other venues might be pursued to bring our two communities together?

Jason Pitzl-Watters: I do think that fantasy films can be a useful dialog-starter. How to start a festival? Perhaps the best way to start is for Christians (or a Christian-Pagan dialog group) to insert themselves into the larger Pagan world. Propose panels at conventions and festivals, and build an audience. This is something that is going to have to built from the ground-up and will no doubt experience a few false-starts in the process. Then, once you have enough support and trust established, move to independent gatherings. At least that is how I would do it! Beyond the excellent idea to use films to spark conversation, I would also encourage Christian bloggers to interact more with the Pagan blogosphere. My own blog, The Wild Hunt, is a good place to start. I think you'll find that many of us are quite open to (respectful) participation and feedback from Christians. Heck, some of our best friends are Christian!

Morehead's Musings: Jason, thanks again for sharing your thoughts and raising some issues for reflection and practice. I'll follow up on your suggestion on a film and dialogue panel within a Pagan festival if I can get my foot in the door and we'll see what develops. And your thoughts for the missional Christian community will certainly be the subject of discussion. Thanks again for the interview.

1 comment:

Yewtree said...

John, thanks for interviewing Jason, that was great.

I just want to second his thoughts on mission. A large number of Pagans believe that all religions are valid paths to the Divine for the people who practise them, and we do not believe that one religion has an exclusive revealed truth.